Image design: Tina Tiller
Image design: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsApril 10, 2024

We all deserve a healthy environment – now let’s make it a human right

Image design: Tina Tiller
Image design: Tina Tiller

As the government slashes protections for wildlife in service of short-term economic growth, James Shaw is campaigning to enshrine environmental protections into human rights law. WWF-New Zealand’s Kayla Kingdon-Bebb explains why Shaw’s fight is one worth having.

Politicians often like to pit people against nature. Just recently, prime minister Chris Luxon criticised rules around protecting the pesky (and critically endangered) Hector’s dolphin which stopped a Sail GP race taking place in Lyttelton.

Earlier in the year, resources minister Shane Jones launched a bizarre tirade against ‘Freddie’ the frog for standing in the way of mining opportunities in Coromandel.

And across the ditch, Australian MP Barnaby Joyce famously declared “people before possums” back in 2017 when he advocated to downgrade the conservation status of an endangered possum to allow logging to take place in its habitat.

This pervasive narrative paints our natural world as something that blights economic growth, thwarts money-making activities, and poses a nuisance to our right to prosper.

But it ignores a fundamental truth. Humans don’t exist independently of other life on earth – we depend on it for our very survival. Humans, just like frogs or dolphins – or plants and water – are part of the ecosystem, not at odds with it.

Devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle in the Karekare valley. (Photo: Ted Scott)

Creating a false rift between jobs and income and a flourishing natural world undermines the simple and unequivocal fact that all human rights depend on a healthy environment.

Each and every one of us needs to be able to breathe clean air, have access to fresh water, and live in a stable climate for our survival,  and our primary sector-heavy economy is acutely reliant on a healthy environment. In Aotearoa, we need nature to survive – and to prosper.

We have already seen climate change-related disasters like Cyclone Gabrielle destroy human lives and livelihoods and displace people from their homes. And too many New Zealanders already have their lives cut short as a result of air pollution or become ill from unsafe drinking water.

The twin existential crises of biodiversity loss and climate change are not just environmental issues – but fundamentally, at their core, they are human rights issues too.

That’s why the bill Green Party MP James Shaw is advancing in parliament today is so important.

Shaw wants to amend New Zealand’s Bill of Rights Act to include a provision that everyone has a right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. It would implicitly recognise the value of our environment and enshrine our interdependence with the natural world in law.

Former Green Party co-leader James Shaw. (Image: Tina Tiller)

This is not a new concept. In 2022 the United Nations General Assembly declared the ability to live in “a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” a universal human right. And around the world, 80% of nations already recognise the environment is a human right in their law.

But while it’s not a new concept, it is a significant one.

It’s significant because it means Aotearoa’s lawmakers and parliamentarians would be required by law to consider, and address, the environmental and climate impacts of any new legislation, and it would make it easier for the public and the courts to hold them to account.

Such a mechanism is needed now more than ever.

Aotearoa New Zealand is losing our native species at unprecedented rates, climate change-related disasters are increasing, our rivers and lakes are dying, and the health of our ocean is in rapid and sustained decline. We are at a tipping point.

For our children and grandchildren, climate change will pose even more severe risks to their lives, livelihoods, and way of living.

We will see more extreme weather events forcing people from their homes, political and economic instability arising from water scarcity and food insecurity, and rising sea levels threatening coastal populations and increasing the spread of diseases.

And yet this government seems intent on taking us backwards, slashing the few protections in place for our dwindling wildlife and wild places; prioritising destructive fishing methods over safeguarding our ocean; opening the country up to an unprecedented expansion of extractive industries like mining; and introducing a reckless fast-track approvals regime which will allow new infrastructure to go ahead irrespective of its impacts on our environment and local communities.

In just a few short months, the coalition government has launched an all-out war on nature. It has set out to unwind and erode the little progress we’ve made over the past decades, and has made it abundantly clear that short-term extractive economic growth will be prioritised above all else.

So as we gear up to fight for the persistence of our natural world and the rights of our future generations, I urge MPs across the House and from all political stripes to stand up for our right to a healthy environment and support this bill as it undergoes its first reading today.

This is not just about protecting nature for nature’s sake. It’s about protecting nature for all our sakes.

Keep going!